It’s Hard To Love You ft. Kanye West & Lana Del Rey
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I’ll admit it: I’m a Lana Del Rey fan, or at least I was. I have the “Born to Die” vinyl and a “Norman F—ing Rockwell” poster hanging on my wall. I have 42 liked songs and three albums downloaded. Imagine my heartbreak when I became aware of her history of problematic behavior, including unprompted mentions of Black artists’ sexual expression and the conflation of the word “rapper” with a person of color. This history of behavior not only makes it harder to love Lana Del Rey, but it also makes it more difficult to navigate her music.
Kanye West falls into the same category. And while his comments about Jewish people and Hitler are horrid, such as when he posted he would “ go ‘death con 3’ on Jewish people,” what should we do with his music? How should we engage with artists who double down on their hateful messages? And more importantly, how should we engage with their art?
These questions plague my thoughts whenever “Summertime Sadness” or “Stronger” appear in my queue. For guidance, I’ve turned to a wide range of political examples, starting with Mahatma Gandhi, renowned for his work on nonviolence and leadership in the Indian protest against colonial rule. What is less well-known about this icon is his anti-Blackness. During Gandhi’s time in South Africa, he advocated for continued segregation, arguing that Africans were inferior to Indians to justify the differential treatment of races.
How should we deal with Gandhi’s legacy in light of his racist beliefs? His anti-colonial stance has undoubtedly influenced leaders such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. To totally reject Gandhi’s legacy would be wasteful and counterproductive in the fight against injustice. Yet, Gandhi remains a flawed individual, perhaps (like many of us) unfit for pure reverence. Gandhi represents the problems of totality: The total rejection of the positives of Gandhi ignores the beneficial change that his ideas have brought while the total rejection of his problematic ideals gives him an almost god-like status, free from criticism.
Next, let’s consider the painting “Mother Mary with the Holy Jesus Christ.” At first glance, the work is beautiful, filled with lush colors and serene facial expressions. That is, until you hear who created it: Adolf Hitler. Yeah. Not so pretty anymore. Why does knowing the author of a piece change the way we value it so radically? It’s much easier to throw away the paintings of Hitler and discredit his entire life than it is to do the same with Gandhi, both because of the incalculable loss of human life he orchestrated and the negligible benefit of his painting. Yet this example demonstrates the difficulty of working on a case-by-case basis. If we were to evaluate “Mother Mary with the Holy Jesus Christ” without any context as to who created it, there’s nothing wrong with the painting. Yet that sterile environment is almost impossible to achieve: How can you forget the monster who made the work while consuming it? If Gandhi demonstrated that understanding problematic people in totality is flawed, Hitler demonstrates that understanding them in isolation is no different.
With these opposing examples, we can turn to the most popular way of engaging with problematic artists: separation. This method judges art solely for its individual merits disregarding its creator. The biggest benefit of this model is that it feels guilt-free. Using this paradigm, it’s easy to cookie-cut what we want out of artists while removing their problematic nature by saying “this good,” or “this bad.” Yet, as demonstrated by Hitler’s painting, this cookie-cutter model ignores the ways we can become complicit in problematic or downright hateful behavior.
The separation of artist and art can support an artist’s problematic lifestyle. By continuing to put money in their pockets through tickets and merchandise, consumers not only directly benefit those producers, but consumers also implicitly signal that there is no repercussion to the producers’ actions, emboldening the latter further. This is why even staunch separationists will often agree that monetary support ought to be cut out, yet it is difficult to continue to listen to an artist and not give them your money. Streaming services such as Spotify will monetize views and while one person’s number of listens may seem insignificant, it raises the question of how much money is okay to give these artists. Two cents? One dollar? Additionally, when many, many people decide to financially support the artist, their individual contributions add up to a big percentage of artist revenue.
A less explored aspect of the separation debate is cultural capital. When we listen to an artist and enjoy their music, we not only give them monetary support, but cultural backing as well. Think about how we communicate music we like: We often use the artist as a substitute for their music (e.g., I love Lana Del Rey!), and in a world full of celebrities, their day-to-day lives are just as important as their music. Independent from money, a large fanbase gives artists a certain level of authority, power, and most importantly, a voice to continue their hateful message. This means that pirating the music of problematic artists isn’t enough to escape culpability. Similarly to monetary backing, continual cultural reinforcement of problematic artists tells them that they’re able to get away without altering their actions — best demonstrated when Kanye said, “Adidas can’t drop me.”
Is separation possible and more importantly, useful? When we read a new novel, is it good to forgo the time it was written and the author’s biography? Can we gain a holistic understanding of Kanye if we ignore his mental health? The artist and their art are inextricably linked since the art is a reflection of who creates it. While the problematic side of the artist may not always show in the art, it is a copout to separate the art from the artist, especially when we ourselves rarely do so in real life.
Yet, we still haven’t answered the question: How do we engage with the art of problematic artists? If separation is impossible and bad, what other method is there? While I wish I could continue to indulge in Lana Del Rey’s music, my criticism of separation leads me to conclude that we ought to cease our monetary and cultural support of artists, including listening to artists. But to forget about them entirely is counterproductive — much like Gandhi, we should be open to allowing artistic inspiration from these artists, such as Kanye West inspiring Childish Gambino or Lana del Rey inspiring Lorde. Despite this openness, we should continue to hold the art and the artists themselves accountable.
Additionally, while individual actions are important, so are collective ones. We should look toward corporations and companies to take culpability as well, such as sponsors and streaming services that can retract support from and deplatform artists, withdrawing critical sources of monetary and cultural capital. This is not “cancel culture” — it is a demonstration of accountability. It shows consumers and creators alike that no matter how popular somebody is, they remain accountable for their words and actions.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide how you’ll engage with artists, but ask yourself if what you stand for matches who you support. For me, my poster of “Born to Die” no longer hangs on the wall, and my Lana Del Rey playlist hasn’t been touched in almost a year. Have a genuine conversation with yourself and be prepared to get uncomfortable. Discomfort is powerful, listen to it, and let it guide you.
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It’s Hard To Love You ft. Kanye West & Lana Del Rey